The 2017 season is still several months away. But we never stop looking forward here at the Big Ten blog.
It may be ridiculously early, but we're examining the must-win game and the potential trap game for each league team this fall. Up next: the Minnesota Golden Gophers.
Must-win game: Maryland, Sept. 30
For the second straight year, Minnesota has an advantageous early-season schedule, and it needs to take advantage of it. It's likely going to be a transition year under new head coach P.J. Fleck, who will inherit a young roster without any proven quarterbacks. But Fleck and the Golden Gophers can build some momentum with a nonconference slate that features two highly winnable games at home (Buffalo and Middle Tennessee) and a road trip to Oregon State, which went 4-8 last year. The Big Ten opener sees Maryland come to TCF Bank Stadium. Minnesota beat the Terrapins by three touchdowns on the road last year, and while Maryland should be better in 2017, this will be an early litmus test for Fleck's program. If the Gophers are going to be any kind of factor in the West Division this fall, they need to get off on the right foot. That makes this a must win.
Trap game: Middle Tennessee, Sept. 16
At first glance, this doesn't look like all that dangerous of a game for Minnesota. But consider that it comes the Saturday after that trip to Oregon State, meaning the players will likely get home late from the West Coast and have to adjust their body clocks for the following week. Also consider that the Blue Raiders won eight games last year, including a road victory at Missouri. They also bring back quarterback Brent Stockstill, who threw for 3,233 yards and 31 touchdowns last year in just 10 games. He leads an offense that averaged 39.7 ppg in 2016, 12th-most in the FBS. This Conference USA team will have a puncher's chance, and the Gophers had better be ready.